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Got Those End-of-Semester-Student-Course-Evaluation Blues?

Remember the days when spring came and your fancy would turn to … love?

These days, as spring approaches, thoughts of love or any other pleasure may be overshadowed by thoughts of grading, exam construction, and … student evaluations! Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re as much a rite of spring as crocuses, robins, and April showers.

Did I say “love ‘em”? Does anyone actually love student evaluations? I know some people who love (or at least like) the idea of student evaluations. Most of us actually are interested in finding out how our students perceive our courses and our teaching, but many of us have discovered over time that canned, end-of-semester evaluations often fail to provide that information … at least not in the kind of depth or detail that would actually help us improve our courses or our teaching. So what can we do?

An Idea for This Semester
Time is short, and if you haven’t already administered your end-of-semester, student course evaluations yet, you’re probably going to soon. Before you do that, however, take a tip from aeonelpis, who, on July 19, 2010, posted the following comment in response to a Prof Hacker piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, asking people to “Share Your Ideas for Evaluating Teaching”:

I dedicate the entire final class period to a discussion about the course. We go through the syllabus, day by day, and they give me comments. I start them with readings and what we did in class, then move to supplementary media and activities, and then turn to assessments. I end with a discussion about classroom atmosphere, my pedagogical approach, and general comments about the course. Then I distribute the forms, and I ask them to summarize their thoughts in light of our conversation. After an hour of discussion, during which I press them for details (e.g. why did you like that activity, in particular?), I get much more thorough, detailed, and reflective comments in the forms. I find this helpful for getting more thorough and thoughtful evaluations, and I also have all of their suggestions and ideas in hand early enough to implement them for the following semester.

Now, clearly, you don’t want to wait, as aeonelpis did, until the last day of class to do this. For one thing, here at Illinois State, your students will have already completed their course evaluations before then! But it’s not a bad idea to engage your students in some reflective thinking about the course before they complete their course evaluations. This falls under the category of teaching critical thinking skills.

One of the problems with asking students to evaluate our courses and our teaching is that students are not innately evaluative or reflective thinkers. Thinking in these ways is something they’re supposed to be learning and practicing as part of their university experience … and it takes repeated practice for them to master these skills. (There are days when I wonder if I’ve mastered them yet; how about you?)

This brings me to my next point and to …

Some Ideas for Future Semesters
In the future, don’t rely solely on those end-of-semester student course evaluations for feedback on your teaching. We need to start collecting this information MUCH earlier in the semester, and we need to do it over and over again. Providing students with multiple opportunities to provide feedback is almost guaranteed to increase the value of the feedback they provide.

  • At bare minimum, you should collect some feedback half-way through the semester. CTLT’s Midterm Chat service is one way of collecting feedback at mid-term, but it’s certainly not the only way. You can also ask a colleague to conduct a Midterm Chat with your class. The questions CTLT asks are available on our website, and you and your colleagues are welcome to use them in each other’s classrooms. Or, if you’re not brave enough to do that, you can ask your students these questions yourself. You just need to be sure to find a way for them to respond anonymously … and then you need to be able to sift through the “raw” data efficiently and effectively. (This is harder than it sounds.)
  • But don’t stick to the bare minimum. The more frequent the opportunities for feedback, the more open the lines of communication in your classroom. So consider asking your students to follow up major exams, projects, and papers with some reflection on both how and what they learned from those experiences. Or integrate one of Frank Angelo and Patricia K. Cross’s Classroom Assessment Techniques into your course at least every week or two.

And don’t rely solely on your students for insights into your course and your teaching. Think 360 degrees:

  • Get feedback from your peers (if you’re comfortable asking a departmental colleague to come watch you teach or to review your course materials, take advantage of CTLT’s Classroom Observation or Video (Ad)Vantage services or sign up for an Instructional Strategy Consultation and ask a CTLT program staff member to review your syllabus or discuss a particular assignment.
  • Then get feedback from a mentor or your program director or department chair. This might happen formally in the form of your Chair’s and/or DFSC’s response to your ASPT documentation, but it can happen informally as well.
  • And don’t forget to provide yourself with some feedback! Becoming a reflective practitioner is the surest path to professional growth.

Ultimately, the key to improving student evaluations is not necessarily to do away with them (or to ignore them), but to supplement them in a variety of ways and to support our students in their quest to become truly evaluative and reflective thinkers.

Comments

Many thanks for rendering those warm and friendly, healthy, edifying and in addition fun tips on your topic.

Thanks for reading and responding to my posting! I'm new enough to logging to get excited when that happens. ;-)